Loved Lasers, Lost: Venezuelan Nuclear Spy Accused

Pedro Leo Mascheroni, the former scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who is accused of trying to pass nuclear secrets to Venezuela, makes an unusual spy suspect. He hasn't been hiding from government officials; for 20 years he's been trying to get their attention.

Pedro Leonardo Mascheroni i i

hide captionPedro Leonardo Mascheroni, photographed at his home in October 2009, was indicted on federal charges of communicating classified nuclear weapons data.

Heather Clark/AP
Pedro Leonardo Mascheroni

Pedro Leonardo Mascheroni, photographed at his home in October 2009, was indicted on federal charges of communicating classified nuclear weapons data.

Heather Clark/AP

Since 1988, when he was laid off from the nuclear weapons division of Los Alamos National Laboratory, he's been sending angry letters to legislators, expert scientific panels and private advocacy groups in Washington. Those letters accused the Department of Energy of mismanaging its nuclear weapons program and wasting billions of dollars on a giant laser that could never achieve its goal.

"I wouldn't call them missives," says Steven Aftergood, director of a project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, who received some of Mascheroni's shipments. "They were bricks, delivered by Federal Express, with lengthy, verbose and rather dense introductions explaining why he was right, and not only was he right, but everyone else was wrong."

The most charitable of Mascheroni's former colleagues and friends call him a contrarian or even a whistle-blower. Mascheroni's objections to the Department of Energy's plans often had merit, they say. In fact, James Woolsey, a former CIA director, came to Mascheroni's defense in 2002. Woolsey wrote letters to leading senators, saying that he believed there was "substantial merit" to Mascheroni's technical views.

Many others are less kind.

"I regard him as a crank and a nut," says Hugh DeWitt, who has known Mascheroni and his wife, Marjorie, for more than 40 years. "He wants to dominate. He wants his idea only, and everybody else can go to hell," says DeWitt, a retired physicist who worked at the other nuclear weapons laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in Livermore, Calif.

A Laser Quest

In the mid-1960s, when Mascheroni was studying physics at the University of California, Berkeley, DeWitt was his informal academic adviser. DeWitt and his wife also attended the wedding of Leo and Marjorie Mascheroni in 1967.

A Timeline Of The Case

1979 Pedro Leonardo Mascheroni, known as Leo, goes to work at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a physicist in the X Division.

1980 Marjorie Mascheroni, Leo's wife, gets a job at Los Alamos as a technical writer and editor.

1988 Leo Mascheroni loses his job at Los Alamos.

November 2007 Leo Mascheroni allegedly contacts Embassy of Venezuela in Washington, D.C.

March 2008 FBI starts sting operation. Undercover agent contacts Leo Mascheroni, posing as a representative of Venezuelan government.

November 2008 Mascheroni delivers document outlining plan for developing a nuclear arsenal.

October 2009 FBI raids Mascheroni home in Los Alamos, seizes computers and files.

Sept. 16, 2010 Leo and Marjorie Mascheroni are arrested and charged with disclosing government secrets.

The two scientists stayed in touch after Mascheroni went to work at Los Alamos in 1980. Mascheroni worked in the X Division, which was responsible for research on nuclear weapons.

"But my impression was, from my occasional contacts with him, that he never was very interested in nuclear weapons directly," says DeWitt.

Mascheroni got interested instead in ways to create nuclear fusion, using the concentrated power of lasers. The Department of Energy was pouring money into one approach, but Mascheroni started pushing for a different kind of laser, one that uses hydrogen fluoride gas. "I've watched Leo become more and more passionate, and then obsessional, about his laser," says DeWitt.

That passion led to constant disputes with other scientists at Los Alamos, including his supervisor. In 1988, Mascheroni lost his job. "I think the people at Los Alamos wanted to get rid of him because he was a pain in the ass," DeWitt says.

Contact With Venezuela

That's when Mascheroni started sending all those packages to Washington, still pushing his laser idea. And three years ago, according to the federal indictment, the physicist, who was born in Argentina, got in touch with the Embassy of Venezuela in Washington. Prosecutors aren't saying what he did or said there. Marjorie Mascheroni's defense lawyer and DeWitt both say that they have been told that Mascheroni wanted Venezuela to build his hydrogen fluoride laser.

Soon after that visit, an undercover FBI agent approached Mascheroni, posing as a representative of Venezuela's government. Mascheroni offered to help Venezuela build nuclear weapons, and a few months later, delivered a 132-page report outlining how Venezuela might develop a small nuclear arsenal. The plan included a laser; the indictment doesn't say of what type.

Whether this document actually contains genuine secrets probably will be debated at Mascheroni's trial. Joshua Dratel, a defense lawyer in New York who's a veteran of litigation involving government secrets, says Mascheroni's reputation for exaggerating his own knowledge may help him.

"I could see an argument where, if he's trying to promote himself as someone who has more knowledge than he has, the best way to do that might be to convince the Venezuelans that they're getting inside information, when they might not be," says Dratel.

Marjorie Mascheroni, meanwhile, is accused of editing those documents and helping to deliver them. DeWitt is convinced that Marjorie acted only out of fear of her husband.

"We have watched the process where this woman Marjorie seemed to be getting more and more battered and psychologically down, to the point where she would do anything to avoid making Leo angry," DeWitt said.

Marjorie and Leo now have different lawyers. In fact, they've been ordered to stay in different cities, except for when they show up in court. Leo is in Albuquerque; Marjorie is at home in Los Alamos.

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